Kentucky Derby Preview Series – The Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby – By Eric Solomon

The shortest fields in these Derby Prep Races have been in Southern California this season, and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby is no different, drawing only six runners. However, this might be the most anticipated race of the big three prep races being run on Saturday, as it feels like a heavyweight battle between the San Felipe winner, Forbidden Kingdom and the Robert B. Lewis winner, Messier. Both horses are responsible for two of the more impressive efforts on the road to the Kentucky Derby this season, so it only seems fitting that they’re going to meet in the only Grade 1 race in California exclusively for three year olds. They’re joined by Taiba, who was an exceptional winner in his six furlong debut last month. 

 

Santa Anita Park Saturday 4/9/2022, Race 6: The Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby

170 Total Derby points (100/40/20/10)

 

 

1 – Happy Jack (20-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): He made up for his poor effort in the Robert Lewis Stakes by finishing third in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes last month. However, he was never really in contact with the field, finishing 10 and ½ lengths behind Forbidden Kingdom at the wire. Blinkers go on today, and he continues to work well for Doug O’Neill. There’s only five other horses to contend with, and finishing third in this race might net him enough points to get into the starting gate for the Derby, while also paying $75K. I think third place is the absolute ceiling for him, barring any unforeseen events.

2 – Armagnac (20-1 ML): After winning his maiden race at two turns, I thought he had a chance to upset Forbidden Kingdom and Doppelganger in the San Felipe last month. However, he packed it by the time they reached the ⅜ pole. Like Happy Jack, he’s obviously training well in the morning, and seeing as how he’s owned by the same group as Messier, his job might be to try to soften up Forbidden Kingdom on the front end. Regardless of his intentions, I can’t endorse him today.

3- Forbidden Kingdom (6-5 ML, 10-1 Circa): He was a dominating winner in the San Felipe Stakes, beating Doppelganger by 5 and ¾ lengths and earning a 98 Beyer Speed Figure for his victory. Doppelganger went on to a 4th place finish in the Arkansas Derby last week, when he got a strange ride where he was wide, started to fall back after challenging for the lead, but was able to re-rally to get back to 4th. Juan Hernandez rode Forbidden Kingdom like a quarterhorse out of the gate that afternoon, clearing the other speed horses, while going 22:3 and 45:3 for the opening quarter and half mile. He turned for home clearly in front, and the victory was never in doubt. Obviously, the water gets deeper here with the presence of Messier. He’s going to be the one with a target on his back, but he’s continued to improve for Richard Mandella and he’s going to be a tough customer in this race. 

4 – Messier (1-1 ML, +525 Circa): He ran a monster race in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in February, beating four hopelessly overmatched rivals by 15 lengths, while earning a 103 Beyer Speed Figure. That number remains the highest of any horse running two turns in a Derby Prep race this season. Things got more interesting a few weeks ago when it was formally announced that he’d be joining Tim Yakteen’s barn, thus making him eligible to earn Derby points. He had the easiest of trips on the front end when winning the Lewis, but with outside position on Forbidden Kingdom today, I don’t see him on the front end. He was very good while coming from last to win the four horse, Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar this fall, so he has proven that he’s capable of coming from off the pace. John Velazquez gets the call in what is the most anticipated showdown on the Derby Trail so far.

5 – Win The Day (20-1 ML, 125-1 Circa): He is the second horse trained by Doug O’Neill, and he’s partially owned by Boat Racing LLC, the group that had success last year with Hot Rod Charlie. He debuted in January in a turf sprint, where he finished second. He stretched out to a mile on the grass in his second start and was a troubled trip 7th. O’Neill moved him to the dirt, where he rallied from 11 lengths last to power by the other four runners and win by 5 and ½ lengths, covering the mile in 1:38 flat. He has the right to improve in this race, and while many want to be forwardly placed, he’s the only dedicated closer. He’s sired by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Midshipman and his dam sire is Belmont winner, Jazil. I think he makes a lot of sense in the bottom of the trifecta here. 

6 – Taiba (4-1 ML): This former Baffert trainee is the wildcard in this race. He has one start, which was a monster win in a six furong maiden special weight race. He crushed his rivals by 7 and ¼ lengths and earned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure for his effort that day. He makes his second start going nine furlongs in a Grade 1 race, which seems like an awfully big hill to climb. He’s been working well, and gets the services of Mike Smith for his stakes debut. He’s a $1.7 million purchase, who is sired by Gun Runner out of a Flatter mare. He’s obviously bred to be a good one, but there are a pair of serious racehorses in this race, and while he might prove to be better than both in the long term, I’m not going to try him today.

The verdict: 4-3-5

While all three Derby Points races this weekend are strong races, this one is probably the least interesting from a gambling perspective. However, I think this is the most interesting race to watch as a fan. Forbidden Kingdom threw down the gauntlet last month, taking it to the San Felipe field from the jump. His victory in that race was never in doubt. Messier put on a show back in February when he asserted himself early in a small field that was lacking early speed. Under prime circumstances, he blew that field away, winning by 15 lengths on the wire. With the smaller field, this race becomes very tactical. 

Armagnac shares common ownership with Messier, so I have to wonder if Drayden VanDyke will be using him as a rabbit to try to bait Forbidden Kingdom into a speed duel, and thus softening him up for Messier to make a late run. Two weeks ago, we discussed the possibility of Epicenter changing tactics in the Louisiana Derby and rating off the early pace. Like Epicenter, Forbidden Kingdom has qualified for the Derby, so this could be a spot where they could afford to experiment, especially if Armagnac or Taiba is intent on making the lead. The only difference is that the Louisiana Derby is a Grade 2 race, and Epicenter was already  a Grade 2 winner by virtue of winning the Risen Star. This is a Grade 1 race, so while the Derby is the ultimate prize, a Grade 1 win dramatically increases the stud value for the winner. 

Under either scenario, I see Forbidden Kingdom and Messier disposing of the others and meeting at some point in the stretch. At 1 mile and ⅛, I think the edge goes to Messier. Even though Forbidden Kingdom is sired by Triple Crown Winner, American Pharoah, his dam was a sprinter (Just Louise) who was sired by a sprinter (Five Star Day). He definitely has speed in his pedigree, and so far, he’s been able to carry that speed around two turns. I think he’ll be able to win at this distance under the right circumstances, but I think that as the distances get longer, Messier, sired by Empire Maker out of a Smart Strike mare, will gain the upper hand. 

Underneath, I prefer Win the Day over the shorter priced, Taiba. Taiba ran a freakishly fast debut last month, earning a triple digit Beyer Speed Figure at first asking. That’s not something you see everyday, and Zedan Racing paid $1.7 million for this son of Gun Runner, so obviously there are serious expectations. He could just be a freak and dominate this field because he’s that good. However, I think the more likely scenario is that the more seasoned runners will get the better of him. Meanwhile, while the pace is all but guaranteed to be honest, if not fast, Win the Day showed he was more than comfortable sitting back and making one big run. He’ll need to improve considerably to win this race, but I think rounding out a small trifecta is much more realistic. 

 

Each week, we’ll have an update on horses and races from the previous week that may produce starters for the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 2022. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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